Lighter Side – Origins of Common Myths and Phrases

  • Why did people used to think tomatoes were poisonous?
  • Why do brides carry flowers?
  • Where did the expression “he doesn’t have a pot to pee” in come from?
  • How did the the custom of wakes begin?
  • Why do people say “It’s raining cats and dogs” or “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water?”

Find the answers to these questions in more with interesting facts about how common myths, traditions, and expressions originated, and how some of them have a grain of truth to them today.

History They Don't Teach In School (Usually, Anyway)

Why People Used to Think Tomatoes Were Poisonous
Until the mid-1800’s many people in England, English colonies and even the USA thought that tomatoes were poisonous. But it wasn’t the lovely tomato tomato itself that was making people sick.

It Wasn’t the Wonderful Tomato, Pewter Was the Culprit!pewter_plate

Many people used pewter pots and plates. Pewter has a higher content of lead.

Since tomatoes are acidic, lead leached into food especially cooked sauces, soups or stews.

Short-term symptoms of lead poisoning are much like serious food poisoning or actual toxins and include:

  • Severe stomach/abdominal pain and/or cramps
  • Vomiting and/or diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Migraine-like headaches
  • Muscle weakness, staggering, seizures, coma and death.

Italians and other cultures that didn’t use pewter reaped the tasty benefits of tomatoes much earlier. The tomato wasn’t the only food given a bad rap, so were many other fruits like melons.

Relevancy Today. Lead paint is illegal in the US today and the US also prohibits most cookware and eating utensils from using it. The truth: all imports aren’t tested and many things you eat or drink from are exempt.

For example, hand-made US bowls and coffee cups often use glazes with high lead contents. Some of these things are largely unregulated; others are viewed as “decorative” items.”  decorative items and/or unregulated.

Picture from

When in Doubt, Test it Out.

Lead testing kits are very cheap and you can get one kit that can test many items in almost any hardware store. If you have any doubts about your favorite heirloom or decorative dish, test it.

You shouldn’t use these items for coffee, tea or any food that’s the least bit acidic or hot. But, it’s s perfectly find — once in a while such as on special occasions — to use ornamental plates for cookies, cupcakes and pastries.

It’s also a good idea to use a decorative napkin or doily on the area that doesn’t show: the area on which you directly place the food.

Why Do Brides Carry Flowers and Why Are June Marriages Traditional?

Lots of people brides carry flowers and many people think this is an age-old tradition of fertility. The truth is far less romantic.

stinky_stuffBefore the 1920s, when mass advertising sold deodorants and common folks got indoor plumbing, people rarely took baths and practically never during the winter.

Before that, most people took baths once a month or so at most. And until the Victorian age, many people bathed only a only once or twice a year, usually in May when the the weather got warm.

People often married in June because once the summer set in, so did body odor. In June, people were still clean for their standards, but brides carried flowers to cover any unseemly smells.

The tradition of June weddings and bridal bouquets continues, though few know the reeking truth.

moneyRelevant Facts for Today.  June weddings are so popular that between flowers, caterers, venues, bands and DJs, June weddings can cost two, three or four times more than the exact same event in cost of one in April or September.

Think outside the box and save lots of money to use on a great honeymoon or better yet towards a down payment  on a home.  Parents: maybe the ugly truth and can help tame demanding Bridezillas.

The Phrase “He/She Doesn’t Have a Pot to Pee In”

This one is easy.  Before indoor plumbing, people relieved themselves in outhouses by day, chamberpots at night. Those who couldn’t afford chamberpots had to hold their water or run outside, regardless of the weather.

Relevant Facts Today: None really, if you have a computer and Internet connection, you should have indoor plumbing. If you don’t, see a doctor and discuss your priorities.

The Phrase “Piss Poor”

Before modern technology, urine was used to animal skins. To earn money, families used to all peed in a common pot. When it was full, some lucky devil got to drag it to the tannery and sell it. People who used to do this to get eke out a living were referred to as “Piss Poor.”

Relevancy Today: See above note on chamberpots and outhouses.

“Don’t Throw the Baby Out with the Bath Water”

Whoever said the women’s liberation movement was a bad thing didn’t live in the olden days. Tubs were expensive and filling them took a lot of work, usually by the wife and/or servant. (This was not a tradition unique to the poor.)

less_FunBath Time Today
Much More Fun & Relaxing

Most families, when they did bathe, shared the tub and the water in it. Naturally, the father/husband got to bathe first in the clean water.  Then the other men and older sons, followed by women. Children were last and usually the youngest was last.

By the time the babies got their turn, the water was usually so dirty you couldn’t see thing it it. And that’s when people said “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water!”

Relevancy Today: Believe it or not, many people in rural America and certain religious sects still do this today.

I’ve even seen it on “Wife Swap” where people who lived off the land shared a bath once a week. It was one of the few times I thought a spoiled Visiting Wife had every right to refuse to follow the other  families “rules.”

To these people, please research hygiene and alternatives to conserve: save money or rain barrels, shower times, or a ruler to measure what’s in the tub. This stuff can easily get you at least a visit from Child Welfare services.

The Phrase: Upper Crust

For centuries, people from all social groups bread was divided according to the status of who ate it.

Servants and children got the the bottom, which often was hard or burnt. The parents ate the middle and the top was given to guests.

Relevancy Today: I bet that some of the same people who share bath water for religious beliefs do this as well and we do live in a free country.  Stale bread isn’t really a health hazard.

The Custom of Holding Wakes

Those horror stories about caskets with scratches on them are rare but true.  Unfortunately, some dearly departed weren’t actually dead when buried.

While disease or injury was sometimes the culprit the custom really began in countries and cultures where people drank whiskey or ale out of lead or pewter mugs. The combination of booze and lead meant even not-so-heavy drinkers could pass out for a couple of days.

Before burial, the people presumed dead were laid on the kitchen table for two days. Families and friends would gather to eat, visit and remember their loved one and wait to see if the person woke up.

Relevancy Today: In modern medicine in modern countries, it’s unusual for someone to be declared dead, let alone embalmed or buried without extensive medical tests. Most other cultures take different precautions.

The Phrase “It’s Raining Cats and Dogs” and The Use of Canopy Beds

In olden times, home’s didn’t have advanced roofing systems.  Many roofs were thatched of grass, hay or even sod.  And, cats and dogs along with mice and rats slept on the roof or in the attic to stay warm.

It's Raining Cats and Dogs Often was Literal, not Figurative!It’s Raining Cats and Dogs Often was a Literal, not Figurative Phrase!

 When it rained, some animals slipped off the roof; others fell through it because heavy rain weakened it. with no wood beneath them. Cats and dogs, along with mice, rats and bugs often slept in the attic or in the roof itself to stay warm.

The phrase “It’s raining cats and dogs” used to be used literally, not figuratively  during heavy rains.

As far as the people living in the houses, those who could afford it added high posts and hung cloth to prevent some animals as well as mice, mice/bird droppings and bugs from falling into their beds, raining or not.

People may not have bathed often back then, but they didn’t like animals, bugs or filth in their beds anymore than you do. And so, So canopy beds became popular.

As is the case today, you don’t see a lot of poor people with canopy beds.

Relevancy Today:  Believe it or not, many people still live this way even in the Good Old USA.  Be thankful this Thanksgiving that you do not.

Copyright 2012,

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